What is Ladino?

This page is structured as a brief question-and-answer guide, including some of the most common inquiries regarding terminology, classification, and vitality of the language.

Ladino or Judeo-Spanish?

If you are completely new to Ladino, it may surprise you to read that this language goes by many names. For all intents and purposes, however, “Ladino” is the popular term used to refer to the variety of Spanish that developed among Sephardic Jews throughout the Ottoman Empire, where many settled after being forced out of Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century. If you are interested in learning about some of the issues concerning nomenclature — or what to call this language — keep reading.

For many speakers of this language, terms associated with Spanish were often used within families and communities, including (e)spanyol and muestro spanyol (“our” Spanish). For others, terms associated with Judaism were commonplace, including (d)judezmo and djidio.

As both a Jewish language and a Romance language, another term regularly used is that of Judeo-Spanish. This term alludes to the hybrid nature of the language. While its use has been documented in the past, the term is particularly common among scholars of the language today. One reason for this is that it has come to serve as an umbrella term to encompass the myriad varieties of the spoken or written language, from Turkey and the Balkans to Morocco, where the term Haketia is most appropriate.

While a great deal has been written about the multiple meanings and popularization of the term “Ladino,” its use has served as a point of contention for many years. In it’s most careful application, Ladino refers to a written variety of the language that did not reflect the spoken vernacular of the Sephardim. This variety was used to translate religious texts primarily from Hebrew. This variety mirrored the syntactic (sentential) structure of Hebrew, including a number of unique morphological forms, and often eliminated lexical borrowings from non-Hispanic based languages.

The term Ladino, however, has also been used in reference to the spoken variety. This is demonstrated at various points in the great biblical commentary Me’am Lo’ez (e.g. “es deklarado en ladino,” in Part I of book on Deuteronomy). Compiled by a number of rabbinic scholars, Me’am Lo’ez initially sought to educate Sephardim who did not have much training in Hebrew and, thus, understanding of religious texts. Such content was written in a language that was envisioned to “speak” to its readership.

Today, the term Ladino has become quite common, even replacing some of the aforementioned terms that some speakers themselves may have once used growing up. Promulgated in large part by the Israeli National Authority of Ladino and its Culture since its establishment in 1997, “Ladino,” has become the primary term for the language in Israel and beyond. The successful Ladinokomunita online correspondence group, established in 1999, has also contributed to the mainstream usage of Ladino, at least within speech communities where the language is still preserved. Although both of these groups recognize the nuances surrounding “Ladino,” they — like so many others — are simply implementing the most common term.

A dialect of Spanish or a language on its own?

There are a number of ways to address this question. The often-cited quotation attributed to linguist Max Weinreich that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy” demonstrates the power dynamics involved in determining what constitutes a language or a dialect. Ladino is certainly a variety of Spanish, given that it is based on 15th century Castilian in contact with other linguistic varieties from the Iberian Peninsula.

When one hears Ladino, it is mutually intelligible with “Spanish,” a word with its own controversial nomenclature. Mutual intelligibility is one metric used to determine how similar or different two linguistic varieties are from one another. To the ear, a speaker of Spanish would be able to understand a great deal of Ladino. Of course, this depends on the topic being discussed. For example, if a Spanish speaker were to hear a conversation that deals with a religious topic, mutual intelligibility with Spanish would decrease, given a presumed increase of Hebrew-based vocabulary. To the eye, Ladino would also appear similar to Spanish, if one were to read recent publications in the language, printed in Roman characters. However, as noted on the alphabet page, Ladino has a longstanding history being written in varieties of the Hebrew alphabet. This, of course, would lead someone with an untrained eye to believe that any such material was not related to any variety of Spanish.

You can refer to Ladino as a dialect of Spanish if you’d like; this isn’t an incorrect statement. However, you can also refer to Ladino as a language. In fact, the in-depth and authoritative Ethnologue lists Ladino as one the world’s more than 7,000 living languages. Regardless of how you choose to classify Ladino or which parameters you select to do so, it is important to remember that this variety is one that has been preserved, transmitted, and spoken generation after generation. For Sephardim, Ladino has served as their language. It is only when we start comparing linguistic variety X with linguistic variety Y that we start to engage in conversations of “language” vs. “dialect.” Understanding the history, development, usage, transmission, and contact surrounding both the Sephardim and Ladino will allow us to reframe this discussion in a way that recognizes the linguistic construct that is Ladino.

Is Ladino still spoken?

Yes. Since there are many people who believe Ladino to be a dead language, let me write this again. Yes, Ladino is still spoken; it is a living language. The previously-mentioned Ethnologue, like many sources, acknowledges that Ladino is an endangered language, like most of the world’s languages. Measuring the vitality of a language is a complicated process that must consider several factors, for which a number of rubrics exist. In the case of language, vitality does not mean “living” or “dead,” but falls along a spectrum.

While different sources provide estimates for the number of speakers today, which range from 50,000 to 500,000 around the world, these figures do not seem to be based on concrete data. That is, the guidelines writers, reporters, and researchers often use are unclear. What does it mean, for example, to be a speaker of Ladino, and who is counted as one? While one might decide to extrapolate figures collected in regard to the number of Sephardim in a given region, one must be careful in such an approach, considering that the term “Sephardic” does not mean the same thing to everyone.

A great percentage of the Ladino-speaking population was killed during the Holocaust, particularly throughout Greece and (the former) Yugoslavia. Ladino has also suffered in that its speakers — throughout the world — have assimilated to the majority languages of their countries. Most proficient speakers of Ladino are in their seventies or older. There are, however, several cases of Ladino speakers that are in their thirties and forties, raised by one or more of their Ladino-speaking grandparents, and known instances where grand/parents are trying to transmit the language to their own grand/children today.

Ladino is also experiencing a renaissance of sorts, due to individual, communal, and institutional interest, support, and programming efforts. Such initiatives focus on preservation, documentation, as well as revitalization. While Sephardim are responsible for many of these efforts, Ashkenazim as well as people who may have Jewish ancestry or who have no connection to Judaism continue to work together to promote the use of Ladino both in person and online.